Local news for Wapping E1W and Tower Hamlets

Securing the ballot: Report of Sir Eric Pickles’ review into electoral fraud #2

By on August 12, 2016 in Corruption, News, Tower Hamlets council

Further to our straight copy and paste of the 50 recommendations contained in Sir Eric Pickles’ review of electoral fraud in the UK (with a special guest appearance by Tower Hamlets) here are some of the highlights of direct relevance to the borough.

The full report can be downloaded here (PDF)

All emphasis is that of LW.

Inside the polling station

16. The languages spoken in polling stations (and other places such as the count) has recently become an issue with concerns that promoting the use of non-English languages could disguise coercion or influence within the polling station. This has not been helped by the Electoral Commission facilitating what it calls “community languages”[1]. Such an approach undermines integration and leaves the door open to fraud. These are not ‘community languages’ – they are foreign languages. In the last Parliament, DCLG changed guidance to councils to stop expensive and counter-productive translation into foreign languages, but some councils have chosen to ignore it. Ballot papers already feature political party logos which helps voters with poorer reading skills to cast their ballot.

[1] As evident by the Parliamentary answers of Hansard, 3 March 2014, Col. 695W

32. Some respondents raised challenges such as why ID was required to collect a parcel from Royal Mail but was not required to obtain a ballot paper. Others recited anecdotal evidence of people attending police stations complaining of not being paid for their poll cards and of polling station staff reporting a noticeable number of people reading the elector details from poll cards as though unfamiliar with them. Others felt that personation could be happening but undetected

78. Abuses of postal voting on demand were noted too often be carried out in communities where an individual’s right to vote in secret and exercise free choice may not be fully valued. Evidence was presented of pressure being put on vulnerable members of some ethnic minority communities, particularly women and young people, to vote according to the will of the elders, especially in communities of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background. There were concerns that influence and intimidation within households may not be reported, and that state institutions had turned a blind eye to such behaviour because of ‘politically correct’ over-sensitivities about ethnicity and religion.

144. Use of languages other than English raised concerns in terms of effective oversight and observation. Alloyed with candidates and their supporters leaning over tables and even handling ballot papers, this raised cause for concern as to impropriety which then starts to shape the view of the process and the result in a negative fashion. Ensuring a clear process and avoiding scope for doubt need to be part of the planning for all counts. Again, as mentioned in relation to polling stations, all the proceedings should only be conducted in English, and/or Welsh where appropriate.

Ability to raise a petition against people not named in an original petition

170. In the Tower Hamlets case, the election court concluded that the corrupt and illegal practices found to have been committed had benefited the election of councillors of the Tower Hamlets First party; however as they were not named in the petition the court was unable to consider the validity of their elections. Furthermore the deadline for lodging petitions to challenge the elections had also passed, so they were entitled to retain their seats until the next election. Indeed, the election court’s disqualification of the corrupt mayor from office resulted in the acting mayoral position being filled by a councillor from the Tower Hamlets First party who had been elected in the same, tainted elections

171. Petitioners work within the constraints of a relatively short deadline for lodging the petition, a requirement to prove their case to a high standard (i.e. the criminal standard), and the high cost of preparing their case which increases for each person named in the petition. These factors may limit petitioners’ ability to identify all the individuals who have benefitted from electoral fraud at the outset. In order to address this, it should be possible for an election petition to be commenced (by others if necessary) against people implicated in an election court judgment but who were not named in the original petition.

 

Nominations of election candidates

185. Respondents identified a number of other areas where the nomination system was open to abuse. In one example provided, people found themselves named as subscribers without their consent. The person responsible for this, a candidate, stepped down after the matter was passed to the police.

Undue influence

193. Undue influence (as set out in section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983) is considered to be an area of law that is incredibly difficult to prove to the criminal standard. The police have in the past advised their officers to consider using non-election specific powers to tackle undue influence outside polling stations, such as a breach of the Public Order Act 1986 or a common law power of arrest in relation to breach of the peace. Police officers are naturally more knowledgeable about these powers and more comfortable with using them as they form part of their day to day policing. Richard Mawrey QC, in the Tower Hamlets judgment noted that the use of non-election specific powers may have been part of a cautious approach by police officers in that case to avoid possible accusations of bias but he observed that “In policing the polling stations, [the police’s] primary concern was not the provisions of the 1983 Act: their primary concern was the possible commission of public order offences.”

198. Joint academic respondents to the review stated that they heard evidence in their studies of voting in some ethnically-diverse communities that Asian candidates do not believe they will be selected except with the support from Asian areas, and so the communities perceive the need to influence voting to mobilise voters. Such communities reportedly felt abandoned by the political parties, since they perceived that they did not receive as much contact with them as white British communities, and the community elder would be the ‘only person that knocked on the door’. Conversely, a representative from a political party stated that community elders may hold activists from outside the community at bay, on the grounds that they were better placed to go into the community because they understood it better.

199.  A cultural component of undue influence was said to be that of ‘vote selling’, which is typical of patronage politics in some less developed countries where it is normal for a person to show how they have voted and this comes with the expectation of help in return. This can influence voters in communities with certain ethnic backgrounds in their expectations of how the democratic system works in the UK. This observation was echoed by another respondent who believed that it was necessary to consider the importation of political (i.e. corrupt electoral) practices from a country of origin.

Spiritual influence

203.  […] In the Tower Hamlets case, the Election Court heard how a voter was seen crying outside a polling station after allegedly being told by a supporter of Lutfur Rahman that it was “un-Islamic” not to vote for Rahman, and that you were “not a good Muslim” if you did not vote for him. The court found that Muslim clerics had participated in Lutfur Rahman’s campaign to persuade Muslim voters that it was their religious duty to vote for him.

Education and awareness

213. This obviously has resonance in communities which are not fully integrated or for individuals who are vulnerable. Research undertaken on behalf of the Electoral Commission in January 2015 within Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in Britain revealed a lack of understanding of the voting process and how electoral fraud could be committed. This was allied in some communities to a concept of ‘kinship’ which meant that individuals felt obliged to operate as part of a collective community and not have individual choices. This can be exacerbated where there is a feeling that only by acting in concert will a community get its voice heard.

Role of the Electoral Commission

222. Overall, a number of respondents who had direct experience of being engaged in contact with the Electoral Commission felt that there was not a strong response to fraud allegations, or that they focused on granular points rather than the bigger picture. It is clear from the experience of Tower Hamlets that reports of electoral malpractice – particularly from 2012 onwards – were not dealt with in a way that recognised or tackled the development of an institutional culture of corruption at the heart of the local authority.

224. Despite years of warnings on misconduct in Tower Hamlets, the Electoral Commission gave the Borough’s electoral system a gold-star rating for electoral integrity in its inspection reports. We still have a series of tick-box inspections of town hall electoral registration departments that are as ineffectual as those once practiced by the now-abolished Audit Commission.

225. Indeed, after the February to April 2015 Tower Hamlets election court hearing and judgment, both the Electoral Commission’s backward-looking annual report and the forward-looking corporate plan made no substantive reference to the Tower Hamlets case or learning the lessons from it. One can only conclude there was an attitude of denial.

Role of the Police

232. There were mixed views on police force responses to allegations of electoral fraud – administrators mostly think that the police respond positively, but the public does not. In particular, respondents raising issues related to Tower Hamlets were critical of the police and what was perceived as a failure to engage.

233. Following the Tower Hamlets election court case, it is astonishing that no criminal prosecution has been brought by the Metropolitan Police. No further action has been taken against the disqualified individuals or the (now-disbanded) political party. The Met has maintained there was “insufficient evidence that criminal offences had been committed”. This is a surprising statement. The election court disqualified Lutfur Rahman and his agent for a litany of corrupt and illegal practices. He was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt – to a criminal standard of proof – on a series of grounds. There was extensive oral and written evidence tested in hearings held at the Royal Courts of Justice. The damning body of evidence was lucidly laid out in the Election Commissioner’s ruling.

234. The repeated inaction by the Met Police over electoral fraud prior to the 2014 mayoral elections, and after the 2015 election court case, sends a worrying signal that the police are ‘soft’ on tackling and prosecuting electoral fraud, when faced with competing operational demands. As Richard Mawrey QC remarked on the inaction of the police against intimidation outside polling stations: “an unkind person might remark that the policemen and polling staff had appeared to take as their role models the legendary Three Wise Monkeys.” A similar observation could regrettably be made about the attitude of the Metropolitan Police following the election court judgment.

Role of government ministers

253. This strikes me as a reasonable balance to prevent undue political influence on elections. Any such intervention decisions are also challengeable by judicial review – and spurious attempts by the then mayor in Tower Hamlets were quickly thrown out by the High Court. However, the Tower Hamlets intervention happened only after a complete breakdown in democratic processes and after there had been manifest and systematic evidence of corruption.

254. The Tower Hamlets case illustrates how electoral corruption went hand in hand with broader financial irregularities and impropriety, as evident from the PwC forensic audit into the council which I commissioned as Secretary of State. The PwC report was not a comprehensive assessment of all the potential corruption – in some areas, the absence or potential destruction of documents hindered further investigation. There were also clear links between such corruption and the endorsement and funding of extremist causes. Electoral malpractice – such as the bribery offences – were able to flourish because of the broader breakdown of democratic checks.

255. More generally with regard to local authority staff, a number of responses to the review asserted that internal ‘whistle-blowing’ within local authorities on electoral matters was not positively received and that people had been gagged or paid off and there was not a clear framework for whistleblowers to access.

256. The Government should undertake a broader review of councils’ executive structures to ensure that robust scrutiny and powers of challenge by the press, public and councillors exist in local government structures where power is concentrated in ‘strong leadership’ models. Mayoral systems, in particular, provide strong governance and accountability: but they also present greater risks of corruption, and require stronger checks and balances to maintain a robust democratic system.

257. This should include reviewing transparency requirements, rights of access to documents by the press and public, decisions by ‘unofficial’ committees or working groups, official meetings going in camera, whistleblowing protections for both staff and councillors, powers of scrutiny committees, rights of councillors to information, scrutiny of delegated decisions, powers of Full Council to question and review, retention of archives and records, and independent or cross-party chairing of audit bodies. This is not solely to protect against electoral fraud, but to protect local government from the broader culture of corruption and financial fraud that goes hand in hand with it.

Conclusion

Having undertaken this review, I have conflicting responses – I am both dismayed and heartened.

The former because of the evidence that has been adduced that shows the kind of tricks unscrupulous people will play to get candidates elected; and the latter because, despite that evidence, we still have a democracy and an electoral system that, in other than cases like that of Tower Hamlets, generally provides free and fair elections based on a system of trust and openness and inclusion.

The review threw up many disparate points – some contradictory. It also adduced evidence and views on a granular and strategic scale. It is not possible to recite all of those views and I have stuck to the main points about the vulnerabilities of the existing system and how we address them. We are still in the dark on what is actually taking place and, as has been cited in the evidence, significant numbers of interested and informed people are concerned of what has happened and what could easily happen in the future.

My fear now is that such a trust-based system is becoming no longer tenable. To retain the integrity of our democracy, we need to introduce more rigour into the processes we use, to see more clarity and proactivity from institutions such as the police in upholding the system. We need to act now to avoid further major instances of fraud taking place.

Further steps are necessary to stamp out electoral corruption – across voter registration fraud and error, postal voting fraud, impersonation, bribery, treating, undue influence and intimidation.

There are sometimes challenging issues over divisive community politics and ethnic-religious polarisation, but this is no excuse for failing to enforce British law and protect the integrity of our democratic process. The law must be applied equally and fairly to everyone. Integration and good community relations are undermined by the failure to uphold the rule of law and ensure fair play.

Our nation has a proud heritage as the ‘mother of Parliaments’, yet the worrying and covert spread of electoral fraud and state of denial by some bodies threatens that good reputation. It is time to take action to take on the electoral crooks and defend Britain’s free and fair elections.

The House of Commons and Big Ben, London

The House of Commons and Big Ben, London


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